As the United Kingdom-India week inches closer, the UK and India have weathered rough storms during the pandemic years to come out closer than ever. It is now abundantly clear that the bilateral relationship has contributed to saving billions of lives across the world, primarily due to timely vaccine development and manufacturing.
In the early days of COVID-19, India stood by the UK, exporting timely personal protection equipment, masks, and essential pharmaceutical drugs in large quantities. The gesture was generously reciprocated when the UK—during the Delta wave in April 2021—sent surplus vital oxygen generation equipment, oxygen concentrators, and ventilators to India.
In early 2020, once it was clear that scientists at the University of Oxford (in partnership with AstraZeneca) were working on a COVID-19 vaccine, India’s Serum Institute (SII) was one of the early movers to seal a manufacturing deal. It is this three-way partnership that has now been responsible for delivering over two billion affordable, effective vaccines, which have now been administered to not only Indians but also people in many low-income countries as part of India’s vaccine export program. The challenges of poorer countries to administer expensive mRNA vaccines are manifold—they simply don’t have the infrastructure and cold storage capabilities to transport mRNA vaccines that require sub-zero temperatures.
Thus, even if low-income countries receive vaccines for free under the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, the challenges to administer them are unfathomable. However, global vaccine supply hit a hurdle when India banned vaccine exports to the COVAX program during the Delta wave, only to allow them to resume in October 2021. As of today, India has the capacity to manufacture over five billion affordable COVID-19 vaccines annually. With passing time, it is these AstraZeneca-SII vaccines that hold the key to securing a major part of the developing world.
India-UK bilateral ties took quite a hit when the UK refused to initially allow travellers who had taken the India-made AstraZeneca shot or recognize Indian QR-coded vaccine certificates. The Indian side reciprocated with similar restrictions on UK travellers. Fortunately, diplomats of both countries—under the strong leadership of Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Johnson—ensured that tensions didn’t escalate, finding acceptable solutions fairly quickly.
The Russia-Ukraine war has been yet another point of contention on both sides. With India’s insistence on the immediate cessation of war, but refusal to take sides, and the UK’s clear support for Ukraine, diplomatic ties were further strained. However, when Johnson visited India earlier this year, the deep, visible bond between him and Modi silenced the critics who had begun to question the stability of the UK-India relationship. With a strong trade deal likely to be signed by the end of the year, that relationship demonstrates how countries—despite their differences—can indeed continue to work in mutual interest towards global betterment by simply agreeing to disagree on sticky issues.
Today, India is the sixth largest economy in the world, following the UK economy ranked fifth—with a mere $10 billion difference. India’s GDP is projected to grow at 6.2 percent this year (the fastest in the world), while the UK’s growth projections hover around zero percent. In terms of demographic dividend, India expects to add more than 183 million people in the working-age group of 15 to 64 years by 2050, and many will move to other countries seeking work and contributing to those economies respectively.
It is certainly true that, owing to India’s large population size (compared to UK’s declining 70 million), India’s per-capita income remains low. However, with focused efforts of the Indian government to become a global manufacturing hub, combined with the rate of GDP growth, India’s per-capita income is set to change within the next decade as well.
It thus becomes impossible for the world to ignore India, which is turning out to be an alternative to China as a producer—from essential and non-essential goods to skilled labour and services. Countries like the UK—India’s natural partners—historically understand the value of this partnership and how it can be harnessed for bilateral advantages.
Going forward, as global supply chains realign, India has emerged as a credible, dependable partner for many nations, especially the United Kingdom.